Startup Culture Observations from Local Students

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The following is a guest post from members of the student-run Hopkins Consulting Agency at Johns Hopkins University.

About a year ago, Mike Subelsky wrote a blog post on this site titled Baltimore’s Startup Ecosystem. In it he highlighted the features that the Baltimore region offers startups – including affordable living, access to many institutions of higher learning, and convenient travel to major cities such as New York and Washington, DC. He noted also, however, that there is a notable lack of a startup culture in the region, and that it was difficult for newly formed companies to compete with the job offers provided by federal contractors.

In this guest post we would like to offer the perspective of two students currently studying in Baltimore and managing a student-run consulting company, the Hopkins Consulting Agency. We hope to offer our perspective on the entrepreneurial trends we observe at our university and among peers at other universities. It is no secret that the risks of entrepreneurship are easier for young people to stomach. It is convenient, after all, to have few bills to pay, the overconfidence of being freshly graduated, and the safety net of your parents, should all things go terribly wrong. Still, the trends that we have observed in young entrepreneurship are not specific to any age group and may provide useful lessons for current and prospective startup owners.

A Newly Emerging Model of Knowledge

Earlier this year, Peter Thiel (the co-founder of PayPal) awarded $100,000 to twenty college students on the condition that they drop out of college and work on innovative technological startups of their own. Mr. Thiel believes, as do the talented students he recruited, that the current system of college education is too broad and too expensive. Another program focused on encouraging young tech entrepreneurs, Venture for America, seeks to pair recent, talented graduates with startups for two years in the hope that they will become “socialized and mobilized as entrepreneurs going forward.” What both of these programs have recognized is that the current startup culture rewards specificity of purpose and vision, while the current model of university education aims to provide a broad knowledge and generally looks backward, not forward. What will be most important to entrepreneurs in the near future is the recognition that the Internet has radically democratized knowledge. The successful startup entrepreneur, then, is not the one with the degree from the best college, but the one who pursues a bold and specific knowledge based on his/her own vision.

Collegiate Programs

While we can’t provide a comprehensive analysis of entrepreneurship programs at all universities in the area, we can discuss the curriculum at our school, the Johns Hopkins University. Hopkins has an academic center called the Center for Leadership Education (CLE) — which serves as the overseeing body for our consulting enterprise — whose goal is to provide students with business training to complement their primary field of study.

We had the opportunity to speak with a Dr. Tim Weihs, a Professor of Materials Science & Engineering, an entrepreneur who developed his own startup, and the Director of the CLE. Dr. Weihs discussed how the main goal of many universities is to provide “intellectual” training to prepare the next generation of leaders; sometimes, this comes at the expense of “skill-based” training. The CLE is attempting to change this paradigm. Courses in the Center are meant to enhance a student’s skills in another field, not replace them. The faculty are all entrepreneurs, lawyers, and businessmen who have had successful careers in industry before teaching at the University. As a result, students are given the opportunity to learn first-hand from professors who can pass on real-world experience to them.

The CLE was founded in 1996 and has been expanding in popularity and faculty strength in the fifteen years since. It offers a minor in Entrepreneurship & Management, a flexible program which allows students to take courses in a concentration of interest to them: accounting, business law, marketing, leadership, and more. Today, it is the largest minor on campus, and nearly a quarter of all JHU students take a course from the CLE. The program also offers students the opportunity to participate in experiential programs, such as our consulting agency. HCA works closely with clients in research labs, government facilities, and the private industry to help them prepare business plans, marketing reports, and technology commercialization analyses. It’s a practical application opportunity that is invaluable to students like us.

Dr. Weihs sees this as a positive trend moving forward. As the founder of Reactive NanoTechnologies, Inc, he understands the value of the synergy between business and academic research. He sees the goals of a University to be three-fold: to develop educated students, to push the boundaries of knowledge, and to generate technology that goes out and improves the world. With programs like the CLE, he hopes to develop that third category so that the next generation of students don’t only excel in academics but also have the ability to apply those skills to solve real world problems.

Opportunities After College

There are many ways for graduating students and recent alumni to get involved. Communities such as Startup Baltimore are being founded by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs. Technology incubators are being created nationwide and are funding and training new businesses. The Emergency Technology Centers is one such incubator based in Baltimore.

A new model for recent college graduates is being pushed by the Venture for America fellowship mentioned earlier, which is starting its inaugural year. VFA places business-minded graduates in disadvantaged communities, providing them with startup funding, and allow them to grow a business that is integrally tied in with the community. We spoke with Brielle Beaduette from VFA, who discussed the opportunity that VFA provides.

These have been our observations, as local students who are interested in entrepreneurship and hope to pursue careers involving business. Developing a business culture at the collegiate level does not require a Wharton or a Stanford or an MIT. It is facilitated by faculty that push students to use business to amplify the knowledge they gain in other fields of study. It is facilitated by an environment which encourages entrepreneurs to take the leap and give their venture a shot. Baltimore has both, and will continue to grow into a breeding ground for the next generation of businesses.

Josiah Tsui and Saumya Gurbani are the leaders of the Hopkins Consulting Agency, a student run enterprise which provides services to small businesses and large institutions in the Greater Baltimore Area. For more information, please visit www.jhu.edu/hca

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